Student Spotlight: Discovering Florence
I arrived after having not slept for nearly two days. I was drained from a friend’s wedding, had layovers in Toronto and Frankfurt that were just long enough to not afford me time to nap, and I have never been able to sleep on planes. After negotiating an overpriced cab ride from the airport, I was riding in the backseat of a Fiat, just minutes away from what I had been promised was one of the great cultural achievements of the world, Florence. I found it, at this point, unremarkable.
After being dropped off in an area I was assured was close to the school (I am now convinced he had no clue where he was taking me, and decided instead to dump me in the city centre and allow me to figure it out), I found myself standing in the notorious midday Italian heat, exhausted and hungry, with an eighty pound pack strapped to my shoulders and forcing me to lean awkwardly forward to avoid tipping over backwards. I was still unimpressed, and the fact that the Duomo, the aesthetic crown of the city and a landmark I had seen pictures of all my life, was right in front of me, somehow didn’t change that. I wandered around for nearly two hours, and eventually gave up altogether on asking people for directions, before caving and ordering a not great margherita pizza (note to self: no matter where you are, never buy food from a restaurant in an area prone to tourists), I was able to follow fair-skinned, English speaking students back to our building. Here I failed once again, passing Renaissance frescoes and windows with views of terracotta rooftops stretching out to the hilly countryside, to find that there was anything exceptional about my surroundings.
After checking in, I haphazardly followed the directions to my apartment that I only partially remembered, and, after somehow finding it, collapsed on my bed and slept for seven hours. I woke up to the gray of dusk, and figured I should go out to track down some food. I wandered around, looking at menus displayed outside the ristorantes and pretending I actually had the critical means necessary to determine what was a good price for a meal, before randomly selecting a little corner spot with outdoor seating. I ordered only a dish of pasta, unaware at the time that this was referred to as a “primo piatto,” a first dish, and that it would not suffice for a full meal, and a glass of wine.
Early in Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator, an American poet on a Fulbright in Madrid, talks about wandering through the Museo del Prado (considered one of the greatest art museums in the world), and feeling unable to be genuinely moved by what he sees. He even goes so far as to say most people who claim to have profound revelations or life-changing experiences just by looking at a famous work of art are either lying, or they are responding to the cultural expectations surrounding said works that say they are supposed to feel that way, that this is how one behaves in this situation -- because it’s proper. It is clear now, looking back on that first day, that I was only playing at being in Italy. A dish of pasta and a glass of red wine for dinner. I even stopped for gelato after, which was really just okay, but I remember trying to convince myself that it was some gift from the gods, but was really just a little freezer-burnt. Later, I sat on the steps of San Lorenzo, a church near my apartment, and watched the passersby, admiring how at ease they seemed with their evenings, their contentment with the city. I told myself that this was a gift, that many back home would kill to be where I am, and that I needed to enjoy it. That I had to.
The next day, after my classes, I set out again to explore the city. A full night’s sleep had helped, and I was beginning to get my bearings, but the haze of jet-lag still left me feeling cloudy and dislocated. I spent the afternoon walking along the river, stopping again for gelato and a panino (much better than the food the day before), but remained unmoved. As most are wont to do in Florence, I eventually ended up, after a steep climb, at Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers the postcard view of the city famous across the world. However, while that view was undeniably gorgeous, it struck me as crowded (with tourists) and commercialized, and there wasn’t much shade from the still-oppressive Italian sun. I soon noticed, though, the path that drops you at Piazzale Michelangelo does not end there, but continues upward. At its end, and at the top of the hill, stood a church, white and tiny in the distance. After another steep climb, I was standing in front of it, flanked by twin cemeteries and an army of angel statues serving as headstones, and staring upward at its facade. I saw people walking in and followed them.
It’s worth noting that I was raised as a practicing Roman Catholic, and had seen a lot of churches. However, I had never been to one quite like this. It was dark and cool, and it felt dusty (but not dirty). The frescoes were muddled, and it was hard to piece together what they were trying to convey. The design was chaotic, with altars, statues of saints, and candle stands for prayers (drop a coin; pay to pray) set up randomly throughout. Set against the back of the church was a second floor, which looked out over the main area where I was standing. There were two staircases, one on each side of the room, but they were roped off at the top. A church organ began playing, and I craned my neck over the wooden barrier on that second floor. A white robed monk, tonsure and all, was playing, and I looked across the room to the other staircase in time to see a procession of similarly-clad monks making their way slowly down the steps, wrapping around the room before eventually disappearing through a doorway on the first floor. I walked down, and realized that there was a basement to the church, where the pews and main altar (a more familiar design to me) were located, and that you could watch the mass through a wide opening on the first floor. The pews were filled with what seemed like mostly older people. This was a weekday, and, contrary to its reputation as a Catholic country, many Italians do not often attend mass. So these churchgoers were the especially devout.
I sat, leaned against a pillar on the cool marble floor, and watched the entirety of the mass, something, when I was little, my mom used to have to drag me out of bed by my hair on Sunday mornings to do. I couldn’t speak Italian, but understood the rituals and the symbolism behind their movements. The mass was conducted in virtually the same progression as it would have been back home. Finally, as it came time to take Communion, I followed another person in the observation deck down the stairs to get in line. I didn’t know the proper Italian response for when you are offered the wafer, so I instead looked the monk in the eyes and nodded. This was enough. After returning to my post above, I watched as they ran through the final motions of the service, mostly an act of restoring the objects used during the mass and offering a blessing for the churchgoers, their families, and the world at large. Back home, the congregation would have stood and sung a song as the priest concluded the mass and left the altar. Here, however, they remained silent, and the monks stood and began to chant in unison, deep guttural growls. They arranged themselves in another line, and made a similar procession through the church, eyes closed and still chanting. This felt real.
I emerged from the church in time to see the sun setting over the city. The image of it descending just over the Duomo, was one my recently deceased great-grandmother, the real traveler in the family, had described to me dozens of times as a child. She was the one who had urged me to go on this trip, to travel in general. That there was a world beyond Northeast Ohio. Although I had traveled alone before, and had had remarkable experiences abroad, it wasn’t until that moment, after my impromptu baptism in the church, that I understood the value of being there, that a “real” Italy did exist, you just had to go looking for it